DISASTER WAS MY GOD
By Bruce Duffy
Doubleday, $27.95, 260 pages
At 15, he was considered a genius, "model-meek and compliant - eerily so." At 17, his poetry shocked and dazzled the French literary world; at 21, he had stopped writing; at 37, he was dead. Every French-speaking student studies the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and is familiar with his scandalous love affair with fellow poet Paul Verlaine.
Rimbaud may well be the "enfant terrible" of French literature, but his poetry became the inspiration for a future generation of poets and the forerunner of contemporary verse. As Bruce Duffy puts it in "Disaster Was My God" (a quote from Rimbaud's passionate prose poem "A Season in Hell") "Arthur Rimbaud had anticipated, and exceeded, Dada and Surrealism, had checkmated and rewritten fifty or sixty years of future poetry, had barged headlong into the twentieth century."
Mr. Duffy has taken Rimbaud's short, complex life and turned it into a fascinating novel, a tour de force that vibrates with language that sometimes shocks, sometimes thrills, much as Rimbaud's poetry itself shocked the poets of 19th-century France. There is a beguiling freshness and vitality to the novel. Mr. Duffy uses the facts of Rimbaud's life as the skeleton of "Disaster Was My God," fleshing them out with artfully crafted words, thoughts and emotions. But he reminds us that he has written a novel about "the kid," not a biography.
Rimbaud was born in 1854 on his family's farm, Roche, in Charleville in the Ardennes, near the Belgian border in northwestern France, the second of four children. His father, a captain in the French army, deserted the family when Arthur was 6. His mother, "the Vampire," was a controlling harridan engaged in a love-hate relationship with her talented son.
The novel begins with Rimbaud, incapacitated on a stretcher with a throbbing knee, being carried back from a decade in Africa. He left behind the beautiful native girl with whom he had lived for a couple of years, and a devoted servant. The journey is a nightmare of danger, thirst and fear of ambush by hostile natives and wild beasts. "To Rimbaud, the hyenas are almost mythological, terrible raging sphinxes. Half creatures, with big heads and powerful chests. And yet absurdly propelled by puny, withered legs - chicken legs, almost. Beware the hyena's stare. Yellowy eyes. Hypnotic, never veering, locked on her quarry."
Details of the journey are interspersed with events of his life, beginning with his years as a scholar in Charleville. "[B]y his teens, at his height, the boy had rid himself of the florid, bowdlerizing earnestness of his time, with its pieties and fripperies and oddities of punctuation. In fact, with one shrug, he pretty much had freed himself from the prevailing notion of poetry, which, however artfully, finally was written in the language of common sense. ... He was elliptical and irrational. Dissonant. Obscurantic. Crazy. Throw in scatological, too. And so he was alone. Out of his mind with his mind."
Rimbaud ran away from the farm several times in his midteens, only to return, penniless, often on foot, walking for hundreds of miles. Still just 17, he went to Paris at the invitation of Paul Verlaine, to whom he had sent some of his poems. Verlaine, considerably older than Rimbaud, a "*ouble man. Double sex and double mind" - was married to a girl just a year or two older than Rimbaud and lived with her family. Rimbaud blazed into this bourgeois household, creating chaos.
Verlaine fell in love with the young poet, and the two of them rampaged through Paris carousing and drinking "the green fairy," the one lady to whom Verlaine was always faithful, "his Muse, Dame Absinthe, burning the throat like the devil's honey. Fresh as a first kiss, she is, two pillowy green lips exhaling that delicious fragrance of wormwood and anisette!"
Putting aside Verlaine's "poetics, in terms of degradation and derangement, truly it could be said that like de Sade and Byron and Baudelaire before him, [he] was among the very first to set it off." He left his wife and child, moved to London with Rimbaud, and later to Belgium. As for Rimbaud, "[h]is arrogance, his doubleness, his duplicity - they were stupendous. Not to mention frightening, his believing, and not without evidence, that his genius verged on the supernatural. And then, of course, Verlaine shot him."
Verlaine went to prison. "As for the young Rimbaud, the Rimbaud of twenty, in those last months before Verlaine shot him, about poetry he was consumed by the three D's - doubt, dread, and disgust. He had his integrity, and he was increasingly horrified by the cynicism, the selfishness, and the rampant irresponsibility of writing, of creating those vain word creatures, these scoops of Adam dust given demonic breath - to do what? To what end?"
He returned to Roche, the family farm, on and off during the next few years, unsuccessful in many jobs, often wandering on foot through Europe. Ultimately, he went to Harar in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) to work for Bardey and Co., an import-export agency, where he dealt in coffee and then arms. "Bags of coffee. Kegs of bullets. Elephant tusks. Ten years - all junk now."
After his arduous return voyage, he reached Marseille and the sanctuary of the hospital where his leg was amputated, leaving him a bitter man. For a moment during that journey, he felt "that windy, hair-raising excitement, the sudden zero of writing, Writing - you, my willed and willing disaster, my storm. Writing, you be my coat. My war, my faith. My only command."
Mr. Duffy has included some of Rimbaud's powerful poetry, in the excellent translation by Wallace Fowlie, throughout the novel. One of the author's gifts to the reader is to open (or reopen) the door to the vision of this extraordinary teenage boy.
• Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.